does not describe me fully
it is where to start

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Education of a Writer

At a local university, I recently attended a Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o lecture titled “The Education of a Writer.” This University of California professor, novelist, essayist, and Kenyan refugee discussed the influences which shaped him as a writer.

Thiong’o's varied life experiences as political activist, prisoner, exile, and literature professor have all informed his writing. It was when he spoke of the storytelling tradition of his native Kenyan village, though, that I took special notice. Members of his childhood village frequently gathered to tell stories as a group. Those gatherings, Thiong’o suggested, had a critical impact on him as a storyteller. The spontaneity and audience participation of those gatherings motivated him to seek in his later years a participatory form of storytelling.

I had an aha moment as I heard him describe his village experience. I realized I had an equivalent experience in my own life. My childhood “village,” the church, had gathered every night (yes, every night) to sing, give personal testimony, and share Biblical stories. It was done with music, chant, and prayer, as well as with lecture.

I have often spoken of my father’s influence on me as a writer. I have not highlighted though how the nightly church services of my childhood impacted me as a storyteller. Layered throughout my writing are the cadences and voices of those nightly services. It was in church then that I learned to tell stories with song and meaning. It was there that I became a storyteller, even if my own stories later turned out to be vastly different.

Was there an equivalent collective experience which formed you as a writer?

Pilgrim Soul


Judy Croome said...

What a lovely memory to be reminded of, Judith. One reason I hardly (well, never) go to church anymore is because the mystical, musical High Church liturgy has been replaced with hard, superficial sounds and music. These days I feed my soul with CD's of chants from across the religions.

Judy, South Africa

It's those chants that shape my writing now, although as a child it was my mother's love of reading and words which got me hooked on books and my own discovery that books contained a world that was so much more exciting than the real one. Some would call it escapism; I call it flights of the imagination.

Judy Croome said...

Oops, sorry Judith! I don't know why my signature line is right in the middle of my comment! Must be too early here!

Nevine said...

What a lovely and heartfelt experience, Judy! And to answer your last question, yes, I do have a similar experience. Actually, when I was growing up, my extended family loved to share stories of the Arabic oral tradition. That was where my first interest in storytelling developed. There was never a lack of stories to be shared and exchanged, and it was a delight when I was old enough to participate in these lovely evenings of story. Also, my parents both loved poetry, and they would often get together with their friends who shared this passion in what they called "Poetry Evenings". Yes, these are lovely memories, and you've brought them all back.


Judith Mercado said...

Judy, I thought maybe you were trying another format for your comment! Thank you for sharing your memories of your mother's influence.

Nevine, your experience with your family sounds absolutely magical. No wonder your poetry is so wonderful. Thanks for sharing that lovely memory.

A Cuban In London said...

I have read Ngũgĩ's 'Petals of Blood' a couple of times already. It's one of my favourite novels ever. You just reminded me of the importance of this very often overlooked Kenyan writer.

As for liturgical narratives... you made me smile. Just wait for my Wednesday's post and you'll see why. We're in sync.

Greetings from London.

Judith Mercado said...

Cuban, based on your recommendation, I have ordered Petals of Blood. I look forward to reading it.

Cynthia said...

Yes. My childhood summers spent
in my grandmother's home in the
South. I was lucky, along with my
cousin and brother to hear many
interesting stories, which informed
me about the amazing value of
human nature.

Judith Mercado said...

Cynthia, I suspect we all have early communal experiences which inform, not only our lives, but also our writing.